“What Is Jennifer Aniston Having for Breakfast?” and Other Important Research Questions

March 29th, 2011 § 1 comment

Our classmate Steve sent me an Economist Flash Interview” with Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, who cites a University of Michigan study in which “they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google.” According to Hal, “It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and 22 minutes to answer them in the library. Think about all the time saved! Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions. Now getting answers is cheap, so we ask billions of questions a day, like “what is Jennifer Aniston having for breakfast?” We would have never asked that 30 years ago.”

And the fact that we’re asking that question now — and valorizing the technology that can provide a quick answer — is a sign of progress? The study, “A Day Without a Search Engine,” is here.

Steve writes:

Its an interesting study, but what I find more interesting is a) how they conducted it and b) why Varian finds this to be so interesting/awesome.

We were talking about ideology in relation to archives and, while we can agree that the internet is not an archive exactly, I still think this illustrates a good point about how an ideology can shape the nature of an archive (or at least can set parameters as to what information is considered valuable, which in turn could form the basis of a given archive’s content).  Apparently, the study took “a random sample of 2515 queries from a major search engine”; this is a great method for studying many things, but not necessarily for studying the efficacy of googling vs. researching in the library.  I think that this (and Varian) assumes that a) search engines and libraries are used for the same thing and b) that the two contain the same information.  It also assumes that one would ask the same questions of the search engine and of the library (or archive).   The internet (or search engines) gives rise to not only new sets of information (such as celebrity breakfast habits- and yes, google quickly directed me to the fact that Jennifer Aniston eats egg-white omelets when she needs to lose a few quick pounds!) but also to new sets of queries. Varian acknowledges the new set of queries, but merely treats it as something to be quantified and spoken of in terms of efficiency and productivity, but we are only being productive in a very narrow sense- yes, trivia is ever-more accessible, but that is because search engines are designed to make it so, not because it has more actual value than obscure documents or bits of information.  This is a problem for the future of both libraries and archives, I think: as this worldview (that something’s value is proportional to how many people search for it or link to it) becomes more normalized, more obscure pieces of information will be inevitably cast aside; worse, less and less people will notice or care when information and documents are cast aside.

§ One Response to “What Is Jennifer Aniston Having for Breakfast?” and Other Important Research Questions

  • rory says:

    Thanks for this Shannon and Steve. I haven’t read the interview or the study yet, but I enjoyed the commentary.

    I am really fascinated by the ways information (in search engines, or, more generally, in databases as a whole) is organized for retrieval as data, and how this process absolutely has a normalizing effect, and definitely structures the types of queries, or, the epistemological capacity of that information. I think there are a lot of terms in the practice of database engineering that reveal a certain underlying ideology about how structured information should function. And I really like your comment about bits being “cast aside”. I think there is a kind of abject quality about data, or, digital technology in general (we see things as beings, but also, beings as things) and I think this potentially has relevant consequences as we increasingly see life and human experience represented as data. Anyway, I have so much to say about this because I wrote a paper about it last semester 🙂 … which I’d be more than willing to share if you wanted to critique, or share ideas, or were just curious.

    Anyway. I would completely flip it and consider how much luckier the 22-minute searchers were than the 7-minute ones. For one thing, in 22 minutes you’d probably realize how boring Jenifer’s breakfast is and move on to something more interesting. But for another, think about the added “nutritional value” one gets from chewing on a search query for a little bit longer. We admonish those that ingest food too fast — why should we champion those who swallow their information whole without properly digesting?

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